Digital Correlation Does Not Imply Digital Causation

October 24, 2020

The digital marketing industry is largely built on mystique and malarkey – so much so that one of the most important tools a marketer can possess is an understanding of Carl Sagan’s baloney detection kit.

When it comes to digital attribution, one of the ugly truths we should challenge ourselves with is whether the sales and actions we take credit for are causation or correlation. Were our ads the reason that sale happened or are we simply good at putting ads in front of people right before they order? It’s not a black and white issue or a linear path but it forces us to look at campaign results with a more critical filter.

Imagine this: It’s lunch time and you’re hungry. You wander down to a local restaurant that sells pizza by the slice and there’s a man standing outside. Let’s call him Frank. He politely greets you and hands over a 10% off coupon which you take inside and use. Later, when the restaurant is reviewing their sales, they are amazed how many coupons were redeemed and begin thinking about their next offer.

Now consider the same scenario except when you get to the restaurant, it’s not just Frank outside, but 10 other people, all jockeying for position and trying to stuff that coupon in your hand. Frank’s a big guy, though, and he shoves the others out of the way and completes the hand off as you reach for the door.

That, in a nutshell, is the state of performance marketing where algorithms are designed to predict actions and battle for that final touch point often seconds before a transaction happens. And as marketers, our challenge is then to figure out how valuable those touch points were in influencing decision.

Optimizing for awareness

Things get even more complicated when the goal isn’t as simple as a measurable transaction.

When you finished your pizza, what do you do with the paper plate and napkin? In many communities, the correct answer would be to put it in the green bin. But how would you know? Perhaps you saw something about it on a billboard? Or was it that YouTube video?

If you’re a marketer responsible for behaviour change, you have some options on how to get your message out, especially when it comes to digital media. While we can’t pixel trash cans (yet), we could run a performance campaign optimizing towards views on our landing page, for example. This approach will drive the most traffic to the site and give us some benchmarks similar to if we were selling pizza.

But what are we really accomplishing? By anchoring an algorithm to such a narrow objective we incentivize it to go out and find similar audiences and behaviors that led to landing page views previously. Because we are now targeting a more narrow audience, we are paying significantly more for those impressions, knowing that ultimately we are focusing on conversion costs rather than delivery costs. We are likely inviting a clicky audience – the small groups of people (or bots) that intentionally click ads and rarely do what we want after – and probably about half of the clicks will be accidental resulting in high bounce rates, if they register at all. And does someone even need to visit the landing page to understand the message?

If we design that digital campaign around our primary objective, which is awareness, things end up looking quite a bit different. We may focus more on story-telling mediums, like video, that don’t typically drive strong site traffic but are great at getting a message across. We may still run a banner campaign and measure those performance metrics, but optimize it completely differently, leaning more on media 101 principles:

  • We need to reach the right audience and ensure we are concentrating our ad spend there.
  • We need to make sure we are generating enough viewable impressions to reach optimal frequency levels for the message to resonate.
  • We need enough budget and an effective enough media buy to achieve all of the above.

And bonus marks if we can:

  • Weight towards larger, more impactful ad sizes that have a better chance of catching our audience’s attention.
  • Place ads on well known, reputable websites to align our messaging with trusted brands.

While this approach may not generate as much site traffic or satisfy performance metrics, post campaign surveys show the focus on a higher volume of quality impressions targeted to the right audience an optimal amount of times will result in significantly better message recall, and, ultimately, more paper plates in the green bin.

And Frank? Hopefully he recycles the coupons when they expire.